Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Winter at Valley Forge and the Truth about George Washington

By Murray Rothbard

This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty, Volume IV, chapters 8 and 41.

In June of 1775, George Washington was appointed Major General and elected by Congress to be commander in chief of the American revolutionary forces. Although he took up his tasks energetically, Washington accomplished nothing militarily for the remainder of the year and more, nor did he try. His only campaign in 1775 was internal rather than external; it was directed against the American army as he found it, and was designed to extirpate the spirit of liberty pervading this unusually individualistic and democratic army of militiamen. In short, Washington set out to transform a people's army, uniquely suited for a libertarian revolution, into another orthodox and despotically ruled statist force after the familiar European model.

His primary aim was to crush the individualistic and democratic spirit of the American forces. For one thing, the officers of the militia were elected by their own men, and the discipline of repeated elections kept the officers from forming an aristocratic ruling caste typical of European armies of the period. The officers often drew little more pay than their men, and there were no hierarchical distinctions of rank imposed between officers and men. As a consequence, officers could not enforce their wills coercively on the soldiery. This New England equality horrified Washington's conservative and highly aristocratic soul.

To introduce a hierarchy of ruling caste, Washington insisted on distinctive decorations of dress in accordance with minute gradations of rank. As one observer phrased it: "New lords, new laws. … The strictest government is taking place, and great distinction is made between officers and soldier. Everyone is made to know his place and keep it." Despite the great expense involved, he also tried to stamp out individuality in the army by forcing uniforms upon them; but the scarcity of cloth made this plan unfeasible.

At least as important as distinctions in decoration was the introduction of extensive inequality in pay. Led by Washington and the other aristocratic southern delegates, and over the objections of Massachusetts, the Congress insisted on fixing a pay scale for generals and other officers considerably higher than that of the rank and file.

In addition to imposing a web of hierarchy on the Continental Army, Washington crushed liberty within by replacing individual responsibility by iron despotism and coercion. Severe and brutal punishments were imposed upon those soldiers whose sense of altruism failed to override their instinct for self-preservation. Furloughs were curtailed and girlfriends of soldiers were expelled from camp; above all, lengthy floggings were introduced for all practices that Washington considered esthetically or morally offensive. He even had the temerity to urge Congress to raise the maximum number of strikes of the lash from 39 to the enormous number of 500; fortunately, Congress refused.

In a few short months, Washington had succeeded in extirpating a zealous, happy, individualistic people's army, and transforming it into yet another statist army, filled with bored, resentful, and even mutinous soldiery. The only thing he could not do was force the troops to continue in camp after their terms of enlistment were up at the end of the year, and by now the soldiers were longing for home. In addition to all other factors, Americans were not geared – nor should they have been – for a lengthy conflict of position and attrition; they were not professional soldiers, and they were needed at their homes and jobs and on their farms. Had they been a frankly guerrilla army, there would have been no conflict between these roles.

As the end of 1775 drew near, then, Washington's main preoccupation was in forging a new army to replace the 17,000 men whose terms of enlistment were about to expire. His problems were aggravated by Congress's refusal to pay the bounties for enlistment New Englanders were used to receiving; instead caste distinctions were widened even further by raising officers' pay, while privates' pay remained the same. Only 3,500 of the old army agreed to reenlist; for the rest, very short-term enlistments of Massachusetts and New Hampshire men filled the gap until new enlistees finally swelled the total to about 10,000.

Read the rest here.


  1. What a terrible piece of revisionist history. Perhaps Rothbard is ignorant of the contemporary record of both officers AND enlisted men who understood the difficulty in transforming a completely undisciplined rabble into not making OBVIOUS mistakes against the best trained and best equipped military force on the planet.

    Yes, Washington was severe and took many of his lessons from his British training, but none that were not common ideals of military operations at the time. And the vast majority of these forces didn't even read or write. You certainly don't apply modern convention and culture back in time.

    But what rot to compare the principles of government with military protocol. Surely Murray R either never has BEEN in the military, doesn't understand it's history or doesn't understand it's purpose. Armed forces not only are not democratic, they cease to be effective without clearly delineated (and feared) lines of authority.

    Why would you even post this crap without checking history first? Do you hate American history that much? Or America?

    And worse, to post lies of one of the greatest American and military stories at this time of year is mind boggling.

    Shame on the writer for writing, and Wenzel for posting without comment.

  2. On the link to the full article they talk about the "frontiersmen" that used Kentucky rifles and were basically snipers. It talks about how they were treated poorly. Sounds a lot like the Culpepper Minute Men. Didn't realize how they were treated though, or about George Washington.

  3. @PolitiJim - 'revisionist history'- - nice slur. History is never as romantic as its usually portrayed in classroom 'history books'. These 'books' are compiled and peddled by the same Statists that control your money and life.

    You obviously haven't woken up yet...

  4. I know that I may get crap for posting a quote from Gene Callahan, but it is relevant and correct (I believe).

    "all real historical work is "revisionist history": if you aren't revising something we previously thought about the past, you haven't done anything original, have you?"

  5. A good example of how well a non-democratic top down army is doing currently, the United States is spending nearly a trillion dollars a year, and cannot defeat a rag tag bunch of unorganized mountain warriors in Afghanistan.

  6. @PolitiJim

    I understand your reservations about believing any dirt on our first president, but nobody is perfect. I like to hear alternate takes on what went down. Lots of history we are taught is not the whole truth. The Confederacy, for example, is taught in school as being a bunch of evil slave-loving idiots and Lincoln as a completely honest and perfect man. When in fact, there was a long history of the North's oppression of the South. And Lincoln wanted to deport black people, not give them equal rights in America. Legally, the southern states had every right to succeed. And the Confederate flag is often touted as being a symbol of racism, when the American flag has just as much racist history if not more. Indians were slaughtered and herded like livestock under our flag. Is is not a perfect history but important to know about nonetheless. As with anything, it is important to understand that there are biases in any writings about history so it is best to take anything with a grain of salt, but just because it seems different than what we were taught does not mean it is not true.

  7. Read the actual full piece from Rothbard. It tends to correlate with the views of this SC resident regarding the valuable lessons from the tactics successfully used to defeat the RedCoats in the Carolinas. The Swamp Fox was a master of guerrilla tactics and could have taught the strait laced Washington a thing or 2 or more.